This post contains details that may be triggering for individuals who have or have had an eating disorder. Please be mindful and do not continue reading if you feel you might be at risk of this.
This is the story of my journey through an eating disorder. It isn’t something I’ve ever written down before, so while I’ll do my best to cover what I think are the important parts, some details might be missed out.
I feel more nervous about sharing this than anything else I’ve written about on my blog so far. I try to be open. This is one of the few things in my life I’m not all that open about. Eating disorders turn sufferers into skilled con artists. They hide, and they hide themselves well. But I know this is something I need to write about and to share.
In my childhood, I wasn’t allowed girl’s magazines and meal times were protected – a good setup for a young girl to have a healthy relationship with food and her body. However, I wasn’t shielded from puberty. At first I was excited: I looked up to women who had curves and couldn’t wait to have mine too. But, as my body began to change, so did the way I felt about it.
At 13, I got my first period. I felt ashamed. I was “becoming a woman” and I didn’t want anyone to know about it, but was convinced that every person who saw me could tell. They could see it just by looking at me. I got my first bra and started shaving my legs with my brother’s razor. Suddenly, the way I looked mattered. I was embarassed by how my body was changing.
At 14, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety-induced irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In order to combat my IBS and make sure there wasn’t anything else causing or worsening my symptoms, I began keeping a food diary. My food diary forced me to become conscious of everything I was eating – something I hadn’t given much thought to before my diagnosis. From my food diary, I decided to start experimenting with cutting out food groups to work out what was making my stomach worse. Over the next couple of years, I tried cutting out gluten, dairy, processed foods and fatty foods. This opened me up to the world of restrictive eating.
At 15, I had my first serious boyfriend. I was already experimenting with restricting food groups. But now, more than ever, I was conscious of how my body looked, and I wanted it to be different. Despite being a normal, healthy weight, I decided I actively wanted to lose weight. I wasn’t massively active, so the way that seemed to make sense to me was by restricting my food intake. I became best friends with My Fitness Pal. My Fitness Pal replaced my food diary and gave the addition of tracking calories. I started weighing myself once a day. Then twice. Then three times. My life became a game of numbers, each day trying to beat the one before with a new high score of remaining calories. Restricting was easy. Food intolerances were my excuse, so I would cook for myself and weigh my food.
As my restriction worsened, I discovered Ana and Mia, or, “pro-ana” and “pro-mia”: harmful online communities that promote eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia, respectively). They survive under the guise of supporting those suffering with eating disorders, when in reality they encourage them by offering “tips” and “motivation”, and suggesting that anorexia and bulimia are lifestyle choices that should be accepted and respected. The forums fed my belief that I was disgusting and ugly, that my developing eating disorder was something I needed, and encouraged me to hate my body even more.
By the time I turned 16, restricting calories wasn’t enough. The feeling of fullness after eating made me feel horrible. The first time I made myself sick, I sank to the floor of the bathroom and cried. I was overwhelmed with shame: shame that I disliked my body so much that I would hurt and abuse it, and shame that I didn’t have the willpower to lose weight on exercise and restriction alone. It quickly became a ritual and I got good at it. I knew all the tricks for how to cover my tracks. I was still restricting. Eating out became my worst nightmare. At home, I could control what I ate and then purge freely. When I was out, I was plagued with anxiety as I made excuses for not eating, tried to calculate my calorie intake, and made myself sick in public bathrooms.
In February of the final year of my GCSEs, my depression and anxiety worsened to the point that I was having frequent panic attacks and stopped going to my regular classes, instead spending days at home or in the Inclusion Department at the school. It was then that I began baking. I set myself the challenge of baking something different every day, and I did that all through the last months of school, including through my exams. For me, baking became a creative outlet for my anxiety. But it also became another thing that I could control. I would bake and then offload the cakes, biscuits and pastries to friends and family, rarely eating them myself.
During the two years of my A-levels, I floated in and out of recovery – getting better, then worse, then better again. Much like an echo of my GCSEs, during my second and final year of A-levels I stopped attending classes (as agreed by my sixth form) and instead self-taught my final year, going back in only to sit my exams. This, once again, robbed me of any routine and allowed me to have complete control over food.
By the time I finished my A-levels, I had started getting better. The depression lifted. At the time, I didn’t realise, but I had my first episode of hypomania: a period of high mood characterised by an increase in energy, a decrease in the need for sleep, loss of appetite and increased spending (among lots of other things) caused by bipolar disorder. I wasn’t diagnosed until the following year. My restrictive eating and purging was replaced with working out excessively. That summer, I became obsessed with reaching my fitness goals and my bottomless energy helped me achieve them. As the summer ended, so did my high and the unhealthy exercise that accompanied it. By the end of 2014, I had come out the other side of recovery.
I’d love to be able to tell you the magic cure for how I overcame my eating disorder, but there wasn’t one. I don’t have the answers. I can’t tell you how or why it happened. Maybe I’ll understand it better in time. Eventually, my body confidence won on more days than it lost. Some days, I still have to revisit recovery and fight my old demons. But those days are getting further and fewer between.
The reason I’m writing this is because while I was in the grip of restricting and purging, I didn’t feel like I could ask for help. As I started recovering, I wanted to get better. But I thought I didn’t deserve help because I wasn’t bad enough. I thought help was reserved for people suffering so much worse than me.
I shouldn’t have compared myself to anyone else. I shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else. I was ill. I needed help. I deserved help. Whatever my head told me, I deserved help.
I hope that if you’re reading this and are either in the grip of an eating disorder right now, are in recovery, or have recovered, that you feel able to talk and have a safe space to do so. You aren’t alone.
If you’re suffering right now, you deserve to get better.
Please visit the Beat website by clicking here to find information about eating disorders, recovery and support available.